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Paula Vogel: The Signature Season

A talk with the playwright whose work is being celebrated by the Signature Theatre Company. logo
Paula Vogel
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Don't get too comfortable at a play by Paula Vogel; she might confront you with an uneasy truth when you least expect it. In How I Learned to Drive, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize, she transformed a tabloid tale about a pedophile uncle and his Lolita-like niece into a compassionate, complex story of a young girl's sexual awakening and empowerment at the hands of her abuser. In Vogel's most recent play, The Long Christmas Ride Home, she called for stylized staging techniques and puppetry to capture the terrible beauty of a traumatic childhood and the far-reaching effects of prejudice and fear first encountered in the home. The work of this singular and courageous writer is the focus of the current season of the Signature Theatre Company in New York.

"Every play I write is a discourse about power, relationships, and gender," says the 52 year-old playwright. "That's just the way it comes out. Right now, as the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, we are in a curious cultural time in which the majority of art has become escapist. Theater is a place where we come together to have serious conversations that are still funny and still entertaining. It's not a trivial pursuit for me." To facilitate these conversations during the Signature season, Vogel chose three plays written prior to her prize-winning triumph. She is also curating a series of readings to showcase the work of emerging writers, and she's conducting a series of playwriting boot camps that aim to demystify her own profession.

The first play of the season, The Oldest Profession -- a lighthearted and poignant riff about five aging prostitutes facing old age at the dawn of the Reagan era -- has just concluded its limited run. "This play burned so many bridges for me as an emerging playwright," Vogel remarks. It was written in 1980 under a commission from the Actors Theatre of Louisville but was rejected by the artistic director at the time, who was appalled that Vogel had named the five prostitutes after her own grandmother and great-aunts. "I wrote what I intended as a very loving play about aging and prostitution," says Vogel. "[My relatives] were lovely Catholic New Orleans matrons, but what is true for one aging woman is true for all aging women. The true meaning of family values is community values, and if you want to explore conditions, you damn well put yourself and your family on the bench. I got letters from people saying 'You are very sick to write this," and I thought, 'No; I believe in myself and I believe in this play, and I'm going to continue writing, regardless of whether it goes into a drawer or whether I get to see it." Needless to say, Vogel did persevere. She won an OBIE Award 12 years later for her bittersweet comedy The Baltimore Waltz. A revival of this moving, whimsical memorial to her brother, who died of AIDS complications, continues the Signature season next month in a production starring David Marshall Grant, Kristen Johnston, and Jeremy Webb. It will be directed by Mark Brokaw, whose previous credits include the New York premieres of How I Learned to Drive and The Long Christmas Ride Home.

Vogel says that she had begun work on a different play in the summer of 1989 at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, more than a year after the death of her brother. At that artists' retreat, the names and signatures of the men and women who have spent time there are inscribed on tablets in the various cabins they occupied, and Vogel discovered that Thornton Wilder had been a previous occupant of her assigned cabin. Inspired by the author of Our Town, she decided to put away the play she had been working on and started to make, as she puts it, "a quilt" for her brother. "There was a profound moment when I realized that you can use the theater to talk to the dead," she says. "I slept in my cabin without joining the others in the lounge -- I became a sort of phantom of MacDowell -- and emerged three weeks later with the draft of The Baltimore Waltz." Recalling those dark early years of the epidemic, a time of government indifference and lack of scientific knowledge, the playwright says: "I may not have had AIDS but I lived with the fear of having AIDS." Along with her father and older brother, Vogel took care of her ailing sibling. "We slept in the bed and cleaned up the body fluids. We didn't know how it could be transmitted or what precautions we had to take, but we were damned if we weren't going to hold him."

When writing the play, Vogel imagined what having AIDS would be like as she faced the possibility that she herself may have been infected; but, ultimately, The Baltimore Waltz became more a play about grieving: "The truth of the matter is that, for me -- and I imagine it's the same for most people -- moments of pure grief are also the moments when we feel the purest joy. I still recall the astonishing letters I got from people across the country -- not only from people who lost their partners to AIDS but also one from a woman who lost her husband on Pan Am Flight 103. She said the play was her ability to waltz with her husband. It's going to be an interesting challenge for me to go back to that time in my life," says Vogel, who hasn't seen a production of what she calls her favorite play in a decade. "But I don't think AIDS is a historical subject," she adds. "We are continuing to live out that scenario. The Baltimore Waltz is now the African Waltz; it's happening in other parts of the world, always at the margins. What is it that we are not looking at?"

The play that Vogel put aside at MacDowell in the summer of '89 was Hot 'n' Throbbing, which she later finished and which explores violence against women. Its New York premiere, directed by Les Waters, will conclude the Signature's Vogel season in March. The play was first staged 10 years ago in Boston but has had only one other major production since then. In her 1995 introduction to the published script, Vogel charged that a benign censorship from within prevailed in the theater community. "If it weren't for Signature, no artistic director in New York would even dream of touching this play," she states. "I'm doing a rewrite because it is such a complex, difficult play. I had two astonishing productions that helped me, and I'm hoping that I now have enough distance to finally pull it off." Hot 'n' Throbbing isn't only "difficult" because its subject is domestic violence; Vogel's protagonist is a woman with two teenage children who writes pornography at home for a living. "I'm questioning the difference between pornography and obscenity," Vogel explains. "I think it will be a compelling but tough evening that requires not only a sense of humor but also bravery on the part of the audience. No one is paying attention to domestic violence, even though the very techniques used in Abu Ghraib are being used in our living rooms. I'm asking us to spend 90 minutes looking at what is happening right in front of our eyes across America."

Priscilla Lopez, Marylouise Burke, Katherine Helmond, Carlin Glynn,
and Joyce Van Patten in The Oldest Profession
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Last month, in Massachusetts, Vogel married her partner of 15 years, biologist and gender studies professor Anne Fausto-Sterling. When asked if she sees her gay marriage as a political act, the playwright replied that she doesn't think the personal and the political can be separated. That same principle, she adds, informs the world of Hot 'n' Throbbing. For Vogel, it's no leap to connect acts of violence in American homes to the use of sexual power in our prisons overseas. "I don't know how else to describe Iraq and the neo-conservative movement that has taken over this country and the White House other than the enforcement of empire through the enforcement of masculinity."

As part of her Signature season, Vogel is presenting readings of work by three alumni students of her creative writing program at Brown University. Quiara Alegria Hudes' Elliot (A Soldier's Fugue) was presented last month, Jordan Harrison's The Museum Play is slated for January, and Passion Play, Part 3 (An American Passion) by Sarah Ruhl is set for April. Over the decades, Vogel has championed emerging writers; among her students are Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz, Alice Tuan, Lynn Nottage, and the late John C. Russell. Her commitment began, she says, when Actors Theatre of Louisville director Jon Jory rejected The Oldest Profession. "Mr. Jory has done remarkable service to the American theater, as have so many people who stand at the gates," Vogel says. "But, for some reason or other, I was not let through the gates. So my first notion was to start a program where I would seek out writers who have not been let through. My thought was, 'If I can't get my own plays produced, I can be in a room with 10 or 20 playwrights a year and try to make sure that they continue writing. Some of them have to get through.'

"I want to proselytize that everyone is a playwright," Vogel continues. To this end, the Signature season will include several playwriting workshops -- but the unusual thing about Vogel's boot camps is that she is inviting Signature subscribers and board members, theater producers, and even journalists and critics to participate. "I will do the same thing in the room that I've done with graduate students, professional writers, and women in prison," she says. "I think we have perpetuated the model that we are an elite group of people that has been called to the theater or to playwriting as if to the priesthood. We'd be in a better economic and artistic state if every schoolchild knew that they could write plays, write songs, paint. I love the theater. I want to see as many plays done as possible, as many different models of identity, as many different critiques of the world we are currently inhabiting. That's what theater is supposed to do."


[On Sunday, October 24 at 6pm, Paula Vogel will discuss her career with David Finkle, TheaterMania's chief theater critic, at the Ars Nova theater. For information on this program, click here.]


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